Trump calls Romney 'a great man,' but works to undermine him and block Senate run

Before Ronna Romney McDaniel took over as Republican National Committee chairwoman earlier this year, President Donald Trump had a request: Would she be willing to stop using her middle name publicly?

Trump followed up by saying in a lighthearted way that McDaniel, the niece of Mitt Romney, could do what she wanted, according to two people familiar with the comments. But the change was soon plain for all to see. Though she had used her maiden name for years in Michigan, where her grandfather had been governor, McDaniel dropped "Romney" from most official party communications and has rarely used it since.

The moment offers a window on Trump's complicated and often tense relationship with the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, who has remained a frequent critic of the president and is considering a Senate campaign next year in Utah. The pair's history stretches from Romney's pained courtship of Trump's endorsement in 2012 to Trump's searing criticism of Romney in 2016, when he called his predecessor a "stone cold loser" who blew an easy chance to beat then-President Barack Obama.

Those tensions were on display again this week, when White House aides scripted a trip to Utah with a single political goal in mind: to convince Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to run for reelection and thwart Romney from mounting his own bid for the seat, according to a senior White House official involved in the preparations.

The White House focus on wooing Hatch, 83, who aides see as a loyal supporter and reliable vote, is part of a growing behind-the-scenes effort to prepare for a difficult 2018 election season. The senior official, who along with others requested anonymity to discuss the relationship, said the White House worries that Romney would continue voicing open hostility to the president on issues such as the endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

"We hope you continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come," Trump told Hatch in his prepared remarks Monday.

White House officials say the personal relationship between Trump and Romney has improved in the last year, despite the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and Romney's continued criticism. "Mitt's a good man," Trump told the press on the ground in Utah. Trump later called Romney to discuss policy and to ask about Romney's family, said a White House adviser.

But Trump's advisers have long been wary of any public Trump embrace of Romney. Last December, when Romney was being considered for secretary of state, he dined with Trump over a dinner of frogs' legs at Jean-Georges restaurant in Trump Tower. After the dinner, Kellyanne Conway, who is now a senior White House aide, said that Trump's voters would "feel betrayed to think that Gov. Romney would get the most prominent Cabinet post after he went so far out of his way to hurt Donald Trump."

Trump was pleased that McDaniel mostly stopped using the Romney moniker, according to a senior administration and an adviser. Trump's request to drop the maiden name, advisers said, came around the time he noted to others that "Romney" often prompted boos at his events.

Former White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who continues to speak privately with Trump, launched a separate personal attack on Romney and his family at a rally Tuesday in Alabama.

Bannon denounced Romney, who has criticized Moore, for hiding "behind your religion" by going on a Mormon religious mission when he was younger and avoiding service in the Vietnam War. Bannon also called out Romney's five sons for not serving in the military.

The comments created a backlash in Utah, with Hatch, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, all condemning Bannon for criticizing Romney's religious mission. "Mitt is a close friend, and I resent attacks on anyone's religion, especially my own," said Hatch.

But conservatives with ties to Bannon say they plan to keep attacking Romney if he moves toward a Senate campaign with the goal of blunting his impact as a critic of Trump on the national stage.

"If elected, Mitt Romney would take the role as America's number one 'never Trumper,'" said one conservative strategist aligned with Bannon on Thursday, who requested anonymity to discuss strategy. "If he does decide to run I think he can expect a full-on carpet bombing from conservatives coming his way."

The public fights between Trump and Romney have sometimes been fierce. During the 2016 campaign, Romney warned Republicans that Trump was "a con man, a fake." Trump dismissed Romney as a "stiff" and a "failed candidate" who "walks like a penguin."

More recently, Romney has publicly denounced Republican support for Moore, dismissing Trump's argument that keeping the seat in Republican hands is more important than allegations that Moore made sexual advances on teenage girls when he was in his 30s. "No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity," Romney tweeted.

When Trump heard about Bannon's comments in Alabama, he authorized Conway to distance him from the remarks, the White House adviser said. Conway said during a Wednesday morning appearance on CNN that Trump and Romney had "a wonderful conversation" the night before and have "a great relationship."

Officials at the White House and Republican National Committee declined to comment on the conversation between Trump and McDaniel about her maiden name. Cassie Smedile, a Republican Party spokeswoman for McDaniel, pointed to recent fundraiser invites in which the RNC had used McDaniel's full name, and said there was no internal prohibition on using Romney. "This is silly," Smedile said.

Republican Party news releases and social media accounts generally do not use her maiden name.

The White House also declined to comment on the conversations. "The president has full confidence in the chairwoman who has led the Republican Party toward record-breaking fundraising," said Raj S. Shah, a White House spokesman.

Trump has had a warmer relationship with McDaniel, but the president's support of Moore has strained some ties, White House officials said. McDaniel didn't want the RNC to reenter the race after Trump gave a full endorsement Monday but eventually acquiesced after officials told her she should.

First elected in 1976, Hatch is the Senate's most senior Republican and has said he expects to decide on running for reelection before the end of the year. He has welcomed Romney's preparations for the race, describing him as an ideal successor.

Hatch advisers said the president's efforts to woo him were appreciated, but are unlikely to be decisive. "Senator Hatch appreciates the President's support but his final decision will largely be influenced by conversations with his family over the next few weeks," Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said after Trump's visit to Utah.

Romney has spoken extensively with former advisers and colleagues about mounting a campaign if Hatch retires, including several calls with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He's found a receptive audience from Republican senate leaderships.

If Hatch retires, Romney is not expected to face much opposition either in the primary or the general election, given his popularity in the state. "Romney would have to do two things, go up to the capitol and file papers for his candidacy and a make reservations for the victory party," said a prominent Republican strategist in Utah.

In one November statewide general election poll, Romney was ahead by more than a 3-to-1 margin in a hypothetical matchup with a possible Democratic candidate, Salt Lake City councilwoman Jenny Wilson.

Trump's courtship of Hatch began with a January meeting at the White House, where Hatch discussed his desire to reduce the amount of federally protected land in the state. They met again in March, and Trump encouraged Hatch to run again for reelection.

The Monday trip to Utah was carefully choreographed to continue the flattery. Trump and Hatch exited Air Force One together after hours of face time on the plane. The two men rode together in the presidential limousine, and went straight to meet leaders of Hatch's faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for a photo op that Hatch had suggested.

At a church-run charity center, Trump posed for photos with Mormon leaders while pushing a shopping cart. The president then announced the largest rollback in federal land protection in American history, fulfilling Hatch's longtime priority.

The Washington Post's Philip Rucker contributed to this report.